Manga carries with it a reflection of a time period’s culture, but it can also influence and alter the culture of its readers. During the 20th century, manga evolved drastically. There were many series that would become icons within the medium, known in their literary sphere in the same way that J.R.R. Tolkien is known in Western literature for influencing the fantasy genre.
Listed are four manga that began during the 20th century that are essential for understanding the evolution of narratives and themes that began to show up in combat-oriented series during the 21st century, often referred to as 'battle-manga.'
Without these manga, the landscape of the battle-manga genre would likely be drastically different from the one we know today. But it is also important to recognize that manga itself does not exist in a vacuum, and these era-defining series were also influenced by and derived from internal and external sources. In turn, they are also are not the sole force in the transformation of the medium.
Thus, if you think I’m missing some big names, you’d be right. This is not an exhaustive list, and only contains a few series that can be classified in this way and are considered era-defining. Series that began in the late 1990s but are more resembling of the 2000s are not included on this list.
“Astro Boy” is my first pick and the oldest on the list, originally running from 1952 to 1968. Written and illustrated by Osamu Tezuka, “Astro Boy” is a science fiction manga centered around a robot named Astro, who does battle against evil robots and extraterrestrial invaders.
This manga was essential for shaping the future of the manga industry in Japan, and its influence can still be felt today with the lasting popularity of derivative franchises such as “Mega Man.”
It garnered widespread international attention as well, being the No. 11 highest-selling manga franchise at an estimated 100 million sales. It has been further developed into multiple animes, films, novels and video games.
The “Astro Boy” anime was the first homemade animated series to show up on Japanese televisions, and Osamu Tezuka’s art style would be the origin of the big eyes that have become prominent in manga art to this day.
This series is so important because its first anime adaption, as previously mentioned, is what would kick off the popularity of anime, and the art style within the manga became one of the medium’s features that defines it in contrast to Western comics. Moreover, the battle-oriented story format proved to be so popular that the rest of the series on this list probably wouldn’t exist without it.
“Fist of the North Star”
For my second pick, I’ve chosen “Fist of the North Star” by Buronson and Tetsuo Hara, which ran from 1983 to 1988. This series is truly defining of the 1980s. It would go on to influence so many series that came after it.
“Fist of the North Star” centers around a martial artist named Kenshiro, who travels his post-apocalyptic world, ravaged by nuclear war. His martial arts techniques focused on exploiting vital locations on the bodies of his enemies, inspired by acupuncture and pressure points. Thus, the art often involved graphic depictions of bodies destroyed by his techniques.
Not only is it one of Weekly Shonen Jump’s most popular series of all time, selling an estimated 100 million copies, it is ranked within the top 20 highest-grossing media franchises in the world, covering everything from live-action movies and video games to novels outside of its original manga serialization.
One of the most well-known aspects of this manga is its dark atmosphere and the hyperbolized muscular anatomy of men, the latter of which being a trend that would show up in other famous series of that era.
My third pick is “Dragon Ball” by Akira Toriyama, one that everyone knows and loves. Its original run spanned the years 1984 to 1995 and now has its own holiday in Japan celebrated on May 9.
As far as influence on the succeeding era, “Dragon Ball” is almost inarguably the most important. Almost all the biggest names that came out of Shonen publications during the 1990s and early 2000s are explicitly derived from the style and form of “Dragon Ball” and its hero Son Goku.
It’s hard to overstate the significance of this series. For a time it held the record for highest sales in manga at an estimated 250 million to 300 million sales. The only series to surpass this number is “One Piece,” which has peaked at 460 million sales.
The most important concepts that came out of “Dragon Ball” that would find its way into succeeding manga were the personality/character type of Son Goku and the general style of combat depicted within the series.
Characters physically transforming during combat, energy beams and power levels are hallmarks of this series.
“JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure”
“JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure” by Hirohiko Araki is my fourth pick, beginning its run in 1987 and is still ongoing to the present day. Though it didn’t receive much attention in the US until its first story arc “Phantom Blood” received an anime adaption early last decade, “JJBA” is a national phenomenon in Japan and is typically understood as a cultural icon in the same breadth as “Dragon Ball.”
The series so far is divided into eight parts, each following a different member of the Joestar bloodline in a bizarre, supernatural adventure that pits them against forces of evil.
This is a series that has been referenced so many times throughout so many far-flung franchises that the term 'JoJo reference' has taken on a life of its own.
Furthermore, not only is it one of the highest selling manga series, breaching the 100 million cusp, Hirohiko Araki’s art is so iconic that he has had the distinction as being the only manga artist whose manga art has been featured in the Louvre Museum in Paris, France.
The most iconic things that “JJBA” is known for and that has influenced subsequent franchises is its bizarre fashion and poses that have come to be known as 'JoJo poses.'